Poetry: Student Exam Style Question

I asked a student I teach recently to write about two conflict poems, to show him how to write about poetry. I put before him two poems; The Man He Killed, by Thomas Hardy and There’s A Certain Slant Of Light, by Emily Dickinson. Not the easiest of poems to write about but he had to write about the Hardy poem and then the other, as if he had chosen to write about it, because the task set is like previous exam questions. The theme is conflict.

Here is the title/task he was set and below that is his response.

Writing about The Man He Killed, plus one poem of your choice, show how conflict is portrayed in each poem.

Conflict is portrayed as physical in ‘The Man He Killed’ but is also portrayed as mental in ‘There’s A Certain Slant Of Light.’

In ‘The Man He Killed,’ conflict is portrayed as physical violence. The quote ‘I shot at him’ is a prime example of this as it gives us the impression that the character has orders to shoot his enemy on sight. This makes us believe that the military is savage and dangerous. The fact that the poem was written at the time of the second Boer War, which was a war between the British Empire and the South African republic who were fighting alongside the Orange Free State, leads us to believe it had a large influence on Thomas Hardy’s writing.

However, the poem also shows us how conflict changes the way people act. Hardy states how ‘quaint and curious war is’ and ‘you shoot a fellow down you’d treat, if met where any bar is,’ implying that the infantry were ordered to shoot their enemy on sight even though if they were at a bar they would buy each other a drink in peace time.   

The poem ‘There’s A Certain Slant Of Light’ portrays conflict in a psychological way, as if it is all happening in the head. The quote ‘heavenly hurt’ suggests that the person’s head could be hurting from all the conflicting thoughts. ‘Imperial affliction’ implies that the person has a disease of some kind, like schizophrenia, that affects the way they think or they could have a split personality that is causing them pain.

However, at the end of the poem there is a change of perspective with the statement ‘on the look of death.’ This quote makes you rethink the entire poem and makes you realise that the poem is all about someone’s internal conflict with death which explains ‘slant of light’ and ‘cathedral tunes’ and reflects the belief of an angel taking your soul up to heaven when you die.

The two poems have similar rhyme schemes with ‘The Man He Killed’ having an abab rhyme scheme and ‘There’s A Certain Slant Of Light’ having an abcb rhyme scheme throughout. The use of a rhyme scheme keeps the rhythm of both poems moving. Another similarity is that both poems use four line stanzas. This keeps the poems from becoming bland and makes the poems easier to understand. In addition to this, both poems are about conflict; however, they are about different types of conflict. ‘There’s A Certain Slant Of Light’ is about the conflict in someone’s head whereas ‘The Man He Killed is about physical conflict and what physical conflict can make you do.

To conclude, ‘There’s A Certain Slant Of Light’ and ‘The Man He Killed’ portray conflict in very different ways although it is portrayed the same in some ways, for example, in how it can hurt people.

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I think this is an excellent first response and with his permission, I am sharing it here. Well done that man.

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